January 23, 2007

George Carlin — Still Angry

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George Carlin has spent his career exposing and ridiculing the hypocrisy in our most sacrosanct institutions; religion, government and families are not simply fair game but are his most common targets. Happily, at 69, his critical faculties not only remain undiminished but have actually hypertrophied, and his particular brand of pointed irreverence has only been sharpened with age. This wit was on full display during his stand-up act at the State Theater this past Sunday, in which he punctured the hypocrisies and skewered the skewed values of American culture with commendable aplomb and enthusiasm.
This youthful vigor is especially impressive considering that most entertainers would be content to rest on their laurels once they qualified for AARP membership. Especially if they have had a career as storied as Carlin’s. Not only has he performed in 13 HBO specials, written a host of books and released 20 comedy CDs, he also has the distinction of being the host for the inaugural episode of Saturday Night Live. Among the luminaries who followed in that first season were comedy greats Lily Tomlin and Richard Pryor. Not only is that good company to keep (and indicative of his status as a comedian), but it’s worth noting that when he hosted the show the year was 1975. Spending more than 30 years in any field means you must be doing something right. In comedy, it means you’re damn good at what you do.
A self-described “old fuck,” Carlin has certainly not mellowed with age but rather, become even more bellicose. He seemed, if only to this audience member, like a grumpy old grandfather with a penchant for vulgarity and a misanthropic streak a mile wide. However, his role as subversive agitator now lacks the shock value it did in the sixties. Any transgressive appeal Carlin’s act may have held disappeared with the advent of comedians and other entertainers who took an even more liberal attitude toward breaking down cultural barriers and attacking “political correctness.”
Unfortunately, while Carlin still had his bite, his targets seemed predictable and his criticisms largely unsurprising. From the mind which created the seminal comedy bit, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television,” this is disappointing. Too often, he seemed to fall into the trap of easy observational humor, which led to the disconcerting feeling that, rather than a George Carlin performance, one had stumbled into an obscenity-laced Andy Rooney segment on 60 Minutes.
He tried his best to be transgressive but failed. He continually warned the crowd that he did not care if they were upset or shocked, but who goes to a George Carlin show expecting him not to try his level best to offend everyone? Try he did, and it is to his credit that he failed while giving it his best shot. When the only response jokes about pedophilia and incest elicit is tepid applause, something has gone deeply, deeply wrong. In effect, fame and old age now serve as a net under the tightrope Carlin walks on. At that point, there is no drama in seeing him get over to the other side.
It’s not that Carlin seemed out of touch. Early in the show, it looked as if he was about to launch into a tirade about not understanding “kids today” but instead, turned it into a subversion of a ’50s comedians’ routine, expressing his disappointment in the fact that a 14-year-old student having sex with his teacher reported her to the police rather than shut up and enjoy his good fortune.
Nevertheless, his targets completely deserved his ridicule; the problem with his routines was that the targets were too obvious. No one in the audience disagreed with his diatribes about stupid people who talk on the phone too much or stupid people who hold up lines or stupid people in general. And that was the problem: It is difficult to be transgressive or controversial when everyone agrees with you. This may be due to the respect accorded someone so accomplished — or so old — or the fact that his material simply did not have the vicious, instigating edge of his earlier satire.
While he has not mellowed, our culture has become increasingly accustomed to and comfortable with obscenity (case in point: the very existence, let alone the success of, The Aristocrats), and when it comes to shocking and offending, the bar has been placed so high that it is, for all intents and purposes, out of reach.